meme generation and evolution(2)

Brown, Alex (
Tue, 5 Aug 1997 15:34:30 +0800

From: "Brown, Alex" <>
To: "'memetics list'" <>
Subject: meme generation and evolution(2)
Date: Tue, 5 Aug 1997 15:34:30 +0800

Date: 4th July 1997

Thanks to Tony Maas for his generous comments on my e-mail. Here are
replies to his questions:

TM: "....I take it you agree with Bateson's Eternal Verity that all
behaviour is communication, but that seems to be somewhat at odds with
your suggestion that all collectively assimilated experiences can be
"reduced" (excusez le mot) into "messages". I am following McCulloch's
notion of distributed memory, which enables complex systems (such as
societies) to use the relations between their parts as a memory/storage
device. This is why culture can be largely non-verbal, with many
elements that can be
subconsciously transmitted to small children long before they master
language. Neither parents nor children have to be aware of what they
are exchanging and in the case of basic cultural assumptions (local
epistemology) they usually have no clue...."

AB: Yes, as in a lot of other things, I would go along with Gregory
Bateson's views on behaviour as communication. Yet from my point of view
one can reverse this so that if necessary one can say that communication
is behaviour. It all depends from what perspective one wishes to look at
the system. Bateson himself, for instance in 'Steps to an Ecology of
Mind' looks at the human society from several equally valid (and I think
isomorphic) points of view: communication, behaviour, learning, logical
types, pathologies, kinship, etc. If cultural evolution or memetics is
anything - it is interdisciplinary.

Reduction? I don't think so. Logically, what is it that is being
reduced? Nothing is being reduced. Certainly not experience itself,
which is non-compressible. As I said in the previous post: one cannot
transport or transmit experience itself only the report about it, and
inevitably that report will be a compressed version, a diagram or a
formal model (a la scientific theory) of the experience itself - its
most essential features. It is a thing in itself whose relations are
isomorphic with those of the experiences themselves (can be mapped one
for one). That is, the map is not the territory.

I completely agree with the 'distributed memory' concept: a very
powerful idea. I have said before that the cultural code, information
and the typical elements of any style/paradigm cannot be found in any
particular 'location' (in the Platonic sense), but are dispersed
throughout the numerous forms of a particular domain. A cultural code is
not a thing - it is the (statistically understood) relation (of
similarity) between things. As Tony Maas says, the memory storage device
is 'everywhere'. How else would we define the presence or identity of a
cultural paradigm other than through patterns and regularities form and
behaviour throughout a large number of particular examples. (If youv'e
got a reference for McCulloch on this, I would appreciate it).

TM "............Again you seem to be resorting to an atomistic notion of
identifying "meme"with "message", limiting communication to the verbal
(digital) format of language proper. I still fail to see how/where you
make that step....."

AB: No. For me 'message' is not necessarily a linguistic phenomenon, but
certainly a communicational one. Again, a report about an event, but
that report can be any coherent and recognizable form of behaviour whose
form and meaning depends on the context in which it is used. Complex
communication is, essentially digital in the sense of introducing
logical 'gaps between' different sets of elements. The 'space between
words' if you like, or the space between numbers or, more fundamentally,
the DIFFERENCE between one mode or register in a range of behaviours. I
don't think this is an atomistic notion since the communicational
message or report is not reduced to its constituent (but semantically
meaningless) elements (eg. words reduced to their constituent letters).
In semiotic terms there is a semantic bottom line which is drawn below
the basic unit: the familiar, recognizable and coherent form. Another
possible definition of the meme in these terms could be: the basic
semantic unit in any form of communication. Anyway, from the
communication perspective, digital is another name for the mechanism of
cognitive classification.

TM: ".....There is an interesting problem that maybe needs to be
addressed here (I mean in this forum), namely the difference between
condensations that are "impoverishing" (like the minutes of a meeting)
and enriching" (like good poetry)......"

AB: Condensations are only impoverishing if they are used out of
context. More specifically, if there is a refusal or inability to
de-condense/de-compress the message/report into a particular context. In
this case we have schizoid or pathological behaviour where context-free
stereotypes are applied to complex circumstances and 'only the key words
remain'. This can happen in the evolution of a cultural system or in
some cases of individual development: the staccatto or telegraphic style
of communication. Cultural Evolution theory and Memetics has to be able
to deal with the evolution of forms/meme sets in variable environments
which can lead to pathological results. To suggest that this is simply
the result of 'bad memes' flying around is, in my view, Medieval.

TM: "....Are you familiar with the concept of structural coupling (as
formulated by Varela & Maturana)? The above quotation comes very close
to that......."

AB: I've heard the term, but I can't recall the theory off-hand, though
I have looked at their Autopoesis theory along with other
complex/self-organising system theories. Thanks for the reference, I'll
go back and check it out.

TM: "......Hmm. How do you fit in 2nd order learning in animals (I mean
the kind which creates paradigmatic shifts from "before" to "after", as
you described above)? I grant you this is pretty rare, but primates and
dolphins seem to able to pull it off. Even exclamations like yells or
cries, when volatile,
can become rather primitive discrete message (a proto-word, if you wish)
with the semiotic freedom this introduces (up to the point of negation
and referring to past and future)........"

AB: This is a complicated issue in the usual sense that we get
gradations of learning ability throughout the animal kingdom and, as you
say, primates and dolphins are getting pretty close to what we would
regard as the first complex communication. Yet their communication has
an extremely limited degree of semiotic freedom and I would imagine is
unable to discuss the context of the messages they transmit. That is
under which the conditions would chnage the meaning of the message.
Apart from tenses. Can they really negate? As I understood it. Animals
cannot say "no", they can only refuse. Reference to past and future? I
didn't think so but I really don't know.

TM: ".....A very nice example of the determination of process by
organization would be the "fact" of primary colors - conventionally
contributed to the "outside world" but in fact related to the natural
history of our species (with three types of color receptors in the
retina of its eyes). Most other mammals lack color receptors completely
(so they are color blind), but among birds we can find species that are
tetrachromatic and even pentachromatic. Their color-solid (their
"reality") is fundamentally different from our own, even though we share
the same physical world....."

AB: Yes. I like this. This is an example of what I meant.
Structural/biological differences in physiology will produce different
form of perception. This seems obvious enough. Equally then, animals'
spatial and cognitive organization of experience will be entirely
different to ours. What I have been (admittedly) speculating is that
what I regard as our essentially (binary) classification system which
encodes experience in the form of categories, memes or cultural forms is
a product of our particular brain structure and chemistry. What else
could it be? A real and important issue is what possible kinds of
categories does the brain use (Okay...if any), to organize/code
experience. I have suggested a similarity/difference binary
classification (dynamic) process. I get this from what seems to me to be
a typical human tendency to scan apparently random experience for
regularities (similarities of form or behaviour) and build them up into
sets: ie. sets of cultural forms/styles/ paradigms/memeplexes. Then we
try (by work) to make the world look like our classifications.

Maybe this sound too simple but massive recursion of this process at all
scales of experience would in my view still produce the cultural
complexity we see around us. It also recognizes that the brain is not a
passive container for the nesting of passing memes.

Thanks to Tony and regards to all

Alex Brown

This was distributed via the memetics list associated with the
Journal of Memetics - Evolutionary Models of Information Transmission
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This was distributed via the memetics list associated with the
Journal of Memetics - Evolutionary Models of Information Transmission
For information about the journal and the list (e.g. unsubscribing)